A Minute with Miles

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How did the piano get its name? Why can’t you “reach” a crescendo? Who invented opera—and why—and how do you pronounce “Handel”? These and countless other classical music questions are answered on South Carolina Public Radio’s A Minute with Miles. Hosted by longtime NPR commentator Miles Hoffman, the segments inform and entertain as they provide illuminating 60-second flights through the world of classical music. 

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

The efficient and graceful use of the body is crucial to both sports and musical performance. But there are certainly many mental parallels as well -- and the experiences of athletes can teach us quite a bit about what musicians do. Years ago I read an interview in the Washington Post with a professional baseball player named Charles Johnson. Johnson had hit a three-run homer to win a game, and this is what he said afterward: “I recognized a curveball right away, and told myself to stay on it.

The Colors of White

May 28, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

In 2004 the Vatican Museum presented an exhibit called “The Colors of White.” What the exhibit showed, in a nutshell, is that our notion that the beauty of ancient Greek and Roman statues lies in their pure, white form is a relatively modern idea, with no basis in historical fact. Scientists working with electron microscopes discovered vestiges of all sorts of bright paint colors on ancient statues, colors that to modern eyes seem hideously garish, and the curators of the Vatican exhibit commissioned reproductions that were painted with those colors.

David Popper

May 27, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Have you ever heard of a composer named David Popper? If you’re not a cellist, your answer is very likely…“Nope.” But if you are a cellist, your answer is, “Well of course.” There are some composers whose reputations rest almost entirely on their works for one instrument, and who, although they may not have been composers of the first rank, wrote brilliantly for that one instrument. Popper, who was born in Prague, in 1843, is a perfect example.

The Lure of Music

May 26, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

In 1918 the music critic Olin Downes published a book called The Lure of Music. It’s a collection of biographical sketches of famous composers, and it includes listening suggestions, samples of the composers’ works on Columbia records. Most of the composers Downes writes about—people such as Verdi, Chopin, Berlioz, Dvorák—are among the immortals… They were famous then and they’ll always remain famous. But what’s fascinating to me is that I know hardly any of the performers’ names on the recordings. Oscar Seagle, Kathleen Parlow, Hulda Laschanska, Florencio Constantino—ever heard of them?

Heartless Musicians

May 25, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Many years ago I was having dinner with a group of colleagues when the name of a viola player we all knew came up. When I mentioned that this violist had just had his third heart attack, the instantaneous response from an old-timer across the table was, “Really? I didn’t know he had a heart.” As it happens, the heartless violist in question was not a terribly good player, to put it mildly. But we musicians have all known people we’ve found to be thoroughly unpleasant, even cruel, or thoroughly insipid and boring, who walk on stage and play or sing beautifully, movingly.

Counterpoint

May 22, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Counterpoint, also called polyphony, is the art, in musical composition, of combining two or more simultaneous lines of music. The word counterpoint comes from the Latin punctus contra punctum, meaning “note against note,” and the adjective derived from the word counterpoint is contrapuntal.  Now you might ask, why isn’t it called contrapuntal writing when a melody is combined with an accompaniment? The answer is that in contrapuntal writing, the simultaneous musical lines are distinct and independent—each is a theme or melody that could stand alone.

Pizzicato

May 21, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

There are many musical terms that get translated into several languages, depending on the native language of the composer who’s using the terms. The Italian term Allegro, for example, might appear as “Lively,” in English, or “Vif,” in French, or “Lebhaft,” in German. But there’s one musical term that for some reason you’ll only ever see…or hear…in the original Italian, and that’s Pizzicato. Pizzicato is the Italian word for “plucked.” To play pizzicato on a stringed instrument means to make the notes sound by plucking the strings with the fingers.

Program Music Imagery

May 20, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

“Program music” is instrumental music that attempts to tell a story, paint a scene or picture, or convey impressions of a character, place, or event. But no matter how sonically descriptive, music is always open to a range of interpretations—sometimes far removed from the composer’s intentions—and no two people will ever hear the same work in exactly the same way. I’ll go further: in most cases, without descriptive titles we wouldn’t have the first foggiest clue of what an instrumental piece was supposed to be “about.” And what does “about” even mean, when it comes to music?

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Your strange job as a performing artist—musician, actor, or dancer—is to immerse yourself completely in the work of art you’re performing—to lose yourself, in a sense—and yet at all times to remain aware of precisely what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. It’s not easy, and sometimes the process—which is complicated to begin with—becomes downright mysterious. I once heard the actress Helen Hayes tell a story about Sir Laurence Olivier. She was performing in a play with Olivier, and one night he give a performance that was absolutely staggering—especially brilliant even for him.

Finales

May 18, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in classical music, the final movements of instrumental pieces—the finales—were almost always in fast tempos, and they usually ended loud, and emphatically.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Outdoor concerts can be delightful, especially when the music and the natural surroundings make a perfect mix. Then again, when you’re playing outdoors, things sometimes happen that wouldn’t ever happen in the   concert hall—and I’m not just talking about thunderstorms. I’m thinking of a concert I played many years ago at a festival in France. The setting was beautiful—we were in a valley in the Alps—and the music was Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet. What could be better?

Repeats

May 14, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Composers often call for repeats, in their music, for whole sections of their pieces to be played twice. And the question is: what’s the point? One answer is that the repeat helps the listener remember the musical material. But more important, I think, is that the second time through a section always has different meaning, and meanings, precisely because we’ve already heard it once. A return—no matter if it’s to a person, a place, or an experience—always feels very different from a first meeting. Think of a second bite of cake, or a second kiss.

The Harp

May 13, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

If you have a chance to attend an orchestra concert anytime soon and one of the pieces on the program calls for a harp, make sure to watch the harpist’s feet. They’ll be busy. The modern concert harp has forty seven strings, but it also has seven foot pedals, each of which controls one set of strings for each note of the scale. The A pedal, for example, controls all the A strings on the harp, and can change their length so that they sound A-natural or A-sharp or A-flat.

"Prima Donna"

May 12, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Of the many musical terms that have made their way into general usage, one of the most colorful—and useful—is Prima donna.  These days the term gets applied to anyone with an oversized ego—man or woman—but in Italian it simply means “first lady,” and it’s been in use since the 1600s as the title for the singer of an opera’s principal female role.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

I’d like to read you part of an interesting job application letter. It was originally in French:

“My Lord, As I had the honor of playing before Your Royal Highness… and as I observed that You took some pleasure in the small talent that heaven has given me for music, and [as] You honoured me with a command to send You some pieces of my composition, I now…take the liberty of presenting [you] with the present concertos… humbly praying You not to judge their imperfections by the severity of the fine and delicate taste that every one knows You to have for music …”

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